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Why I offered the good preacher a wisecrack

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Posted: Tuesday, July 30, 2013 12:00 am

Being a person of respect is not necessarily what we do for ourselves, but what we do for others.

Here’s a story to illustrate my point:

It was a beautiful day in 1972 at Glendale’s Forest Lawn Cemetery. My grandfather was laid to rest after 80 years of life. His family attended the service, which included his wife, two sons, grandchildren and spouses.

Granddad was not a religious man, but certainly a spiritual one. He did not belong to any church. Therefore, my mother felt it was appropriate to quickly find someone with theological authority to say a few words.

She contacted a minister who did the customary 10-minute oratory. My mother thanked him for coming. She slipped him $10 for his trouble (about $60 in today’s money).

He seemed to feel a little guilty about a “cut and run” performance. So, the minister engaged in a “meet and greet” with my family using the same question, “What do you do for a living?”

Of course, in those days, “one-upmanship” (to borrow a term from satirist Stephen Potter) was “in.” People took pride in their worldly accomplishments as symbols of their intelligence, success and ability to provide for their families. I suppose much of this is still true today.

My mother beamed with importance as my father revealed that he was a professor and department head at the University of California, San Francisco. My uncle was a Los Angeles Unified School District administrator. My grandmother was involved in the city of Glendale and California organizational state politics. You can imagine how the rest of it went.

Finally, the preacher worked his way to me. “What do you do, Stephen?” he asked.

I blurted out, “I’m a rag picker!”

He swallowed a couple of gulps and embarrassingly replied, “Well, I guess the world needs those, too.”

My mother was furious. She later pulled me aside with a lecture about how inappropriate my comment was. She insisted that I had embarrassed the family and been disrespectful toward the hired preacher.

But I was only trying to bring a little levity to a saddened situation and, quite honestly, add a little more to the conversation than, “What do you do?”

My grandmother was the only one who really “got it.” She was quite intuitive. Nana cornered me at the reception with a broad smile and simply let me know that my antics had amused her.

“I think your grandfather would have liked it, too,” she said.

Granddad was an unpretentious, simple man. He had no particular titles or degrees to speak of. He did his job at the telephone company and did it well. Granddaddy took care of his family to the best of his ability. He treated others the same way he wanted to be treated — although often was scorned for his efforts.

Perhaps much of life’s journey is something like Shelley’s famous poem, “Ozymandias.” We can build monuments to ourselves for all to see, but eventually, they just turn to dust and are forgotten.

On that particular day in Glendale, it was Granddad whom I admired most. Not because of any financial, intellectual or other superficial impressions he could have created, but in true remembrance of how he treated me.

Steve Hansen is a Lodi writer.

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